RETROREVIEWS #5: THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995)

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MAY 7, 2013 SCREENING: THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995)

 

It’s confession time: this movie makes no logical sense at all, and I love it. Yes, that sums in a nutshell why I’m a giving a positive review to “La Cité des enfants perdus”, the bizarro “French-German-Spanish science fantasy drama film directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starring Ron Perlman”, as it is described on Wikipedia.

 

Perlman himself even admitted this fact when I watched the film a second time with the audio commentary. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet watched the opening scene uphold of a man screaming and noted to the audience “this opening sequence here might not make much sense”, to which Perlman retorted “The opening? How about the entire movie”? That is indeed the case, as watching The City of Lost Children is a thoroughly surreal experience. I can’t even say the film is jarring because of culture shock. The film is in the French language, but not being a “linguist purist”, I simply opted to watch the English dubbed version. It certainly belongs in the same category as American films like Being John Malkovich, where the audience can be thoroughly entertained despite having no idea what is occurring on screen.

 

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the movie is one element that occurred by sheer chance: Ron Perlman and his then child actress co-star Judith Vittet, have wonderful chemistry on screen and make for an engaging pair that the audience roots for, despite the fact they have little in the common. The most remarkable part of pairing those two is this: Perlman did not know any French while filming, while Vittet knew no English. Thus, the way the two actors played off one another and had a natural rapport on screen is nothing short of magical. Perlman even repeated his French lines phonetically for the role, giving his character another layer of a bizarre, “other-worldly” quality in his performance. One of the more amusing antidotes in the audio commentary is when Perlman talks about getting the script and telling the director he only had one question – why was his character named “One” in the French language? Jeunet told him, “just because”.

 

Retroactively, The City of Lost Children has been described as a movie in the “steampunk” genre. For those who aren’t familar with the term, this means a type of fantasy or sci-fi setting where the world is set in the past (usually the old west such as the 1880s) but involves futuristic machinery and gadgets given a quaint look to them. Personally, I’d reject the labeling since The City of Lost Children isn’t a western and it isn’t set in the 1800s. While the film definitely belongs in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, it deserves its own unique designation, rather than being labeled “steampunk” just because of some the machine designs that were used in the movie.

 

The film is filled with strange characters and settings. It includes a thieves guild, a talking brain in a tank, a pair of evil scissor-welding Siamese twins (no, they are not played by real life Siamese twins!), a special serum developed by a mad scientist, and a magic music box. I can’t really describe the “plot” (none of the online synopsis will help you either, trust me), you’ll have to see it for yourself. Oddly enough, the director (the aforementioned Jean-Pierre Jeunet) went on to make Alien Resurrection next. I consider this to not only be the worst Alien movie of all time, but one of the worst sci-fi movies ever made, and I wish I could wipe it from my memory. Given the huge quality difference between that and his earlier movies, I’m left with only one conclusion: Mr. Jeunet needs to stick to making French movies.

*** out of ****

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